Month: October 2012

“Adventures of Misi, the squirrel”: An interesting interpretation

Because I have no idea how long I will have electricity I will try to post a short note as soon as possible. According to information received in our little borough (population 5,000)  25% of households are already without power. So, I’d better hurry.

My topic for today will be somewhat whimsical. I just finished listening to a conversation with László Majtényi, former ombudsman, who is now the director of the Károly Eötvös Institute. Károly Eötvös was the MP and lawyer who accepted the job of defending the Jews of Tiszaeszlár who were accused of ritual murder in 1882. So, Eötvös is considered to be a champion of justice in Hungarian legal history. The Institute, as I mentioned elsewhere, is a liberal legal think tank.

Majtényi is a quiet fellow not prone to exaggeration, but the Institute’s latest laundry list of tasks to be performed after the possible departure of the current Hungarian government surprised even him. The task is enormous. I’m still planning to write something about this eight-point list, but I don’t think that today is the best time for such analysis.

Instead I will tell you a funny story that Majtényi brought up during his conversation with László Juszt, a reporter working for ATV. Majtényi expressed his absolute astonishment that a street named after Józsi Jenő Tersánszky, a brilliant and anti-communist writer, was deemed to be objectionable by the Jobbik-Fidesz majority of the Budapest city council and was changed. He can’t fathom why. To illustrate his point he brought up a Tersánszky book written for children. Majtényi added that one reason that Hungarian children’s literature was so good during the Soviet period was that first-rate writers not favored by the regime could publish only children’s stories.

So, said Majtényi, Tersánszky’s “Misi mókus kalandjai” (The adventures of Misi, the squirrel) is actually a book against the regime. The story is about a little squirrel whose tail is black instead of red. When the family notices this oddity they become alarmed and their first reaction is that perhaps Misi’s tail should be painted red. A friend of the family, Aunt Jay, has an even more drastic suggestion: the tail should be cut off. Not surprisingly, Misi runs away and during his travels he gets to know the wider world. After several exciting adventures Misi returns home, but he keeps the umbrella that took him all over the world next to him when he goes to bed.

The reporter was highly amused. Majtényi admitted, of course, that this is his own interpretation of Tersánszky’s children’s story. From what I know about this writer Majtényi might not be very far off.

And now let’s keep our fingers crossed that the storm’s aftermath will be less painful than a year ago.

Ignác Romsics on István Bethlen and Kuno Klebelsberg: the 1920s

I’m taking a break from economics and politics and will turn to popular history.

There are a couple of monthly magazines dealing with history in Hungary: Rubicon and História.  Both are edited by well respected historians and the short articles are written by experts in their fields. Both have been in existence for a long time. Rubicon’s first issue came out in 1990 and História has been in existence since 1979. Both are edited around specific topics; Rubicon often opts for topics that are being discussed in current political discourse. For instance, its last two issues examine aspects of the Horthy regime. The most recent has several articles on Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922-1931, whose portrait appears on the magazine cover. The issue before that deals with the life and role of István Horthy, son of Miklós Horthy, governor of Hungary between 1920 and 1944. István Horthy became deputy governor in 1942 but died shortly thereafter in a flying accident in the Soviet Union.

Today, drawing from the latest Rubicon, I’ll spend some time on two men whom I’ve had occasion to write about before. First, Ignác Romsics, the foremost historian of the first decade of the Horthy regime, the Bethlen period, and the author of a recent biography of the former prime minister. And second, Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education in Bethlen’s cabinet. Although there were a lot of personnel changes during Bethlen’s tenure (1921-1931), Klebelsberg’s position was secure despite his many critics, especially from the far right who found him not a good enough Hungarian. After all, his paternal ancestors were German, even though the first Klebelsberg arrived in Hungary in the sixteenth century.

A few days ago I wrote about the Ignác Romsics-András Gerő debate over the former’s alleged antisemitism. After reading this short article I was struck by Romsics’s conservatism as well as his seeming identification with his subject matter. István Földesi, whose answer to Romsics’s article on Trianon and the Holocaust was discussed on Hungarian Spectrum, called my attention to a recent article on Romsics. The author, Péter Sólyom, points out that Romsics’s problem as a historian is that he hides his own assessment of the era he discusses. Thus, says Sólyom, the reader can attach his own interpretation to Romsics’s text, an interpretation that might not correspond to the author’s own.

Prime Minister István Bethlen (1921-1931)

I found a very good example in the first few sentences of Romsics’s introductory article to the issue on Klebelsberg. According to him, “the three outstanding [kiemelkedő] personalities in building the new Hungary were Miklós Horthy who organized the army, István Bethlen the statesman, and Klebelsberg who was responsible for cultural and education policies.”  The single adjective “outstanding” blurs the vast differences between Horthy, whose ideas were pretty close to the far right, and Bethlen and Klebelsberg, both deeply conservative men. Was Horthy truly outstanding in organizing an army that turned out to be a breeding ground for far-right extremists? Can Horthy’s achievements be compared to those of István Bethlen?

One gets even more perplexed when one reads that under Bethlen’s guidance “within a few years the equality of the citizens before the law was restored” (helyreállt az állampolgári egyenlőség). But was it? After all, the numerus clausus was still in force although “its enforcement was made less stringent because of international pressure.” Romsics explains that the law “restricted the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning from 30% before the war to 8%.” This might be factually correct, but mentioning the pre-war figure may give rise to the suspicion that this rather superfluous piece of information serves a hidden agenda. Of course, I might be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been more proper to say that any kind of quota based on race or religion is incompatible with democracy and the equality of citizens?

Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education (1922-1931)

Romsics provides some figures about Kuno Klebelsberg’s achievements, which are in many ways impressive. By the second half of the 1920s Klebelsberg’s ministry received 9-10% of the total budget. Half of this amount was spent on public education. By way of comparison, between 1890 and 1914 the same ministry received only 2-5% of the budget and only 20-30% of that amount was spent on educating the lower strata of society. As a result of the expanded public education the percentage of the population who were illiterate dropped significantly, from 15% to 7%.

Of course, Klebelsberg also held some thoroughly unacceptable ideas about Hungarian intellectual superiority over the neighboring nations and the former nationalities of Greater Hungary, which Romsics ignores.

At the end of the article Romsics summarizes the views of Klebelsberg and Bethlen on the link between education and democracy. “Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery. And naturally for them the improvements in the universities, the establishment of Hungarian institutions abroad, and the new scholarship system was a politically conscious goal.” In awarding scholarships the goal was “to refresh the historical elite first and foremost with the children of the Christian Hungarian middle class.” What does Romsics think of all this? Does he agree with them? After all, he seems to have a very high opinion of both Bethlen and Klebelsberg.

When it comes to the overall assessment of the collaboration of István Bethlen and Kuno Klebelsberg Romsics states that “as far as the harmonization of the values of the past and the demands of the present even today it is exemplary and well worth imitating.”

It seems, therefore, that this deeply conservative and undemocratic regime that came into being through the joint effort of Bethlen and Klebelsberg “is exemplary.” Is this what Romsics really wants to say? Does he think through what he is saying or is he in too much of a hurry to knock off as many articles and studies as possible? I think that is worth pondering. Especially by Romsics himself.

Crowds, the IMF, and the Hungarian budget: a follow-up

Yesterday when I decided to bring up the question of the size of the crowds on October 23 I didn’t realize that in the meantime it had become a hot topic in Hungary. The newly appointed undersecretary for international communications, Ferenc Kumin, was infuriated by all the lies foreign journalists were spreading about the size of the pro-government crowd that marched through the streets of Buda and Pest and ended up on Kossuth tér listening to Viktor Orbán’s speech.

First, let me call your attention to a very old post of mine from September 2007. I vented my frustration over the so-called “political scientists” in Hungary who often end up advising political parties, hiring themselves out as political spokesmen, or becoming high government officials with no pretense of being independent. I brought up as examples three “political scientists”: Tamás Fricz, Ferenc Kumin, and István Stumpf. Fricz is still parading as a political scientist while organizing pro-government demonstrations. Ferenc Kumin switched careers several times in the interim. First, from an “independent political scientist” he became a high official in the president’s office of László Sólyom. When his position was terminated with the departure of Sólyom, he became an analyst with Századvég, a pro-government political think tank, only to be chosen a few months ago for another high level government job, this time in the prime minister’s office. István Stumpf, after the fall of the Orbán government, became a political scientist again and then was appointed to the enlarged Constitutional Court. Stumpf has no judicial experience, only a law degree; he taught political science at the Budapest Law School.

Anyway, Ferenc Kumin is outraged about the foreign press’s distortion of the size of the pro-government crowd. He was especially furious at the Österreichischer Rundfunk, the Austrian public television station, that said that “zehntausende Menschen” (tens of thousands of people)  followed the Milla demonstration while ORF’s Budapest correspondent spoke about only “tausende,” meaning thousands, who were present at the pro-government demonstration. Kumin admitted that eventually ORF corrected its figures and announced that 100,000 people listened to Viktor Orbán’s speech.

But the Austrians were not the only ones guilty of distortion, said Kumin. AFP’s stringer is a Hungarian national, and hence the distortion in the French news agency’s report was most likely due to the political views of the reporter. AFP was called on the carpet, most likely by Kumin himself. The French spokesman informed Kumin that in the absence of official estimates the AFP stringer relied on the estimate of Klubrádió. Now that really sent Kumin into a rage. How can anyone call Klubrádió an independent source? Another black mark against Klubrádió.

Finally, I would like to give a link to an English-language article that discusses modern scientific methods of assessing the size of crowds. One of the readers of Hungarian Spectrum mentioned it in a comment, but I think I should make it available to those who don’t always follow the comments. It is worth reading.

It wasn’t only the size of the crowd that excited the government and the media in the last twenty-four hours. The considerably more important event is that the IMF, which initially refused to comment on rumors of a halt in negotiations with Hungary, decided to speak.

Yesterday at the time I sat down to write my post I knew that both Reuters and HVG had tried to find out more from Iryna Ivaschenko, the Budapest representative of the IMF, about the true story, but she refused to divulge anything. At that time her answer was that the IMF doesn’t comment on “media rumors.” However, by this morning the decision was made, most likely in Washington, that it would be better to provide more information. So, Reuters received a written note from Ivaschenko in which she stated that there is no set date for the continuation of the negotiations. Mihály Varga may have been correct when he told reporters yesterday afternoon that he hadn’t received a letter from the IMF informing the Hungarian government about a break in negotiations. But whatever the case, there seems to be no prospect of continuing the negotiations in the near future. Ivaschenko even outlined the reason for this postponement of talks: as the IMF “explained earlier, the Hungarian government should concentrate on steps toward balanced consolidation of the budget” but instead “they propose ad hoc one-time tax adjustments.”

The Hungarian government doesn’t seem to be terribly shaken by this announcement.  Yesterday afternoon Mihály Varga emphasized that it is not only the IMF that has conditions but Hungary as well. The fate of the negotiations depends on “whether people in Washington and Brussels will understand that this government has its own concepts, its own program…. If they don’t recognize this, the negotiations will drag on and at the end they will not be successful.” Well, I think that settles the question. Just as so many commentators have suspected, Hungary is setting  “conditions” that preclude the possibility of ever signing a loan agreement.

This morning Magyar Nemzet claimed to know that, although the excessive deficit procedure will not be lifted against Hungary on November 7, it is unlikely that the cohesion funds will be reduced. The newspaper learned that Germany already indicated that it would not support monetary sanctions against Hungary. Magyar Nemzet added that Brussels has only a few minor objections to the latest Hungarian budget proposals while Greece, Portugal, and Spain are being treated much more generously. If Hungary were punished, the accusation that the European Union uses double standards would be justified. Or at least this is what Magyar Nemzet thinks.

However, if Árpád Kovács’s calculation that Matolcsy’s tax revenue of 764 billion is in fact no more than 453 billion, that might mean more than small adjustments. And this morning Viktor Orbán announced that the government will take over 612 billion forints of municipal debt. That’s not chicken feed. We will see what Ecofin, the joint session of the Union’s finance ministers, will think, especially after learning about the IMF’s explicit disapproval of the Orbán government’s unorthodox economic remedies.

The Orbán government’s trademark: Constant lies, big and small

Let me start with a footnote to the “war of numbers.” The following letter came from a friend of Hungarian Spectrum. The subject of the e-mail was: Galileo: observe and measure! Here is the letter:

Dear Eva,
Re your blog 23 October ‘war of numbers’:
From what I read and heard from various sources, estimates for Kossuth tér ran from 100 to 400 thousand. No one mentioned, and as far as I know no one publicly questioned, how these estimates were achieved. (Of course, politically no one is interested in that.) Possibly all kinds of people use all kinds of methods for that. For Kossuth tér, however, there is a simple, objective method: measure the space, and divide it by the space pp. Some time ago I took the trouble to carry out this measurement: from the walls of the northern buildings to those on the south: 250 m, and from the entrance of the Parliament to the walls of the opposite building: 50 m. (Because my legs were my measuring rod, and my maximal step length is not quite 1 m, this is probably somewhat less.) Of course, this space can not be occupied by people everywhere (statues, trees). I estimate the space pp on 0.5 m2 (0.7m x 0.7 m). This leads 250 x 50/0.5 = 25,000 people. In addition there are five streets converging on Kossuth Tér. If I take per street a crowd of 10 m wide and 50 m deep, this leads to 5 x 10 x 50/0.5 = 5,000. Altogether 30.000. To me this seems to be still an overestimate. On the other hand I may be wrong in some basic estimates, but certainly not more than 30%. Even then, however, I end up with 40.000 at the maximum. Given the first right-wing estimate of 150.000, I wonder how they would explain where were these other more than 100.000, who were apparently not on Kossuth tér.

Well, I think that will settle the matter, at least for those people who read Hungarian Spectrum. But before I leave the subject of crowds, one of György Bolgár’s guests on today’s “Megbeszéljük” (Talking it over) was Tamás Fricz, an organizer of the Peace March. He is one of the so-called independent Hungarian political scientists whose activities do nothing to elevate the low level of Hungarian political culture. But at least he is a mild-mannered fellow.

In the course of the conversation Bolgár inquired about the size of the crowd and the estimates announced by the Ministry of Interior of 150,000 or even 400,000 people listening to Viktor Orbán’s speech in front of the parliament. First, Bolgár expressed his surprise that the Ministry of Interior made such an announcement. This was a first. Second, he expressed his doubts that 150,000 people could fit into that space. Fricz’s answer was that “we must believe the official estimates.” As you can imagine, that answer didn’t satisfy Bolgár. Fricz explained his position by saying that doubting the police estimates would lead to constant questioning from both left and right every time there was a demonstration. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Well, we can be fairly certain that the Orbán government didn’t tell the truth when it came to the size of the Peace March. One can argue about the importance of the issue: does it really matter how large the crowd was? Some people would say that it doesn’t. On the other hand, we received a couple of comments from true believers even on this blog who obviously found the “overwhelming support” of the government versus the very small number of protesters heartwarming and politically significant.

If the Orbán government lied only about how many people showed up at a demonstration it wouldn’t too bad. But the problem is that they lie about critical matters as well. Let’s take first the various estimates the Hungarian government has submitted to the European Union in order to avoid the excessive deficit procedure. Only yesterday Árpád Kovács of the three-member Budgetary Council stated that upon closer observation the 764 billion forint extra tax revenue announced on October 5 and 17 is only 453 billion. It’s no wonder that Orbán was told in Brussels a couple of days ago that the latest Hungarian numbers “are not quite enough” to keep the deficit under 3%. And Kovács, who isn’t exactly a critic of the Orbán government, didn’t even mention in his report that there is no way Hungary will have 0.9% economic growth next year, especially if Germany musters only 0.8%. More and more people think that on November 7 the European Council will suggest keeping Hungary under excessive deficit procedure. And that could mean the loss of billions in cohesion funds–and these billions are not in forints but in euros.

Another lie being concocted right now deals with the Hungarian government’s relations with the International Monetary Fund. This morning Origo came out with a story that on the surface seems well founded, according to which the IMF has had enough of Hungary’s peacock dance. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Hungarian government’s latest anti-IMF campaign. Millions were spent on full-page ads claiming that the IMF makes intolerable, inhumane demands– for example, cutting child support benefits in order to balance the budget.

One of the ads saying “Cuts to family benefits. No, we won’t give in to the IMF”

This out-and-out campaign against the IMF coincided with the Annual Meeting of the IMF in Tokyo where Mihály Varga was supposed to have a discussion with the IMF officials in charge of the Hungarian negotiations. Apparently these talks didn’t go at all well, and it looks as if for the time being the negotiations–if there ever were any formal negotiations in the first place–have come to a halt.

The forint immediately began to fall after Origo’s report. Varga naturally denied the story, but Varga’s assurances didn’t put an end to the very strong suspicion that Origo’s information is correct, especially after the IMF refused to comment.

It seems that the constant lying (because I consider fudging figures lying), especially when directed against the hand that feeds, has resulted in a potentially dire situation. If the IMF negotiations have come to a halt and if the excessive deficit procedure against Hungary continues (with the possible loss of European Union subsidies) Orbán is in big trouble and so is the country.

Money talks; it also marches

I would like to remain on the topic of the Peace March a little longer because a few days ago I encountered a name that I wasn’t familiar with before: László Csizmadia. His name cropped up as one of the three or four organizers of the march along with Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, and Tamás Fricz. Tamás Fricz is an “independent” political scientist while András Bencsik used to be the editor of  party news in Népszabadság during the Kádár regime. And we all know about Zsolt Bayer, a good friend of Viktor Orbán and a man known for his coded anti-Semitic writings.

So, we know a fair amount about these people’s past and current activities, but one hears little about László Csizmadia. He is currently the chairman of the Nemzeti  Együttműködési Alap (NEA / National Co-operation Fund) and as such he has about 3 billion forints at his disposal to hand out to deserving civic organizations. The Orbán government doesn’t have to worry about this money ending up in the wrong hands. Csizmadia makes sure that only those groups receive grant money who judiciously work for the regime of national cooperation. As Csizmadia said in July of 2011, it is wrong to assume that civic groups are normally anti-establishment, anti-governmental entities. The list of those who received sizable sums of money from NEA is by and large a list of faithful supporters of the regime.

Free money / ep.Sos.de / flickr

Yes, the list. The NEA’s website is designed in such a way that a full list of the grants cannot be accessed, but atlatszo.hu managed to obtain the list. Even if one doesn’t know much about these groups the names themselves are telling: the Knights of St. George, Women Lovers of Wine in Tokaj; Hungarian Carpathian Association; Association of Christian Intelligentsia; and Regnum Marianum Catholic Community, among many others.

Csizmadia, in addition to his chairmanship of NEA, is also the head of a whole network of civic groups that are the beneficiaries of his NEA largesse. Csizmadia claims that some 400 civic groups belong to this umbrella organization, The Civil Együttműködési Tanács (Council of Civic Co-operation), which held its first open meeting in November 2011. I tried to find a list of these organizations but was unsuccessful.

Csizmadia also organizes the pro-government demonstrations through another most likely phony organization called Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF / Forum of Civic Co-operation). The financing of the demonstrations comes from the Civil Összefogás Közhasználatú Alapítvány (Nonprofit Foundation of Civic Cooperation). One cannot help but suspect that all these foundations and channels serve mainly to obscure the true source of the funds.

Csizmadia occasionally publishes articles on a website called Polgár Porta (www.polgarportal.hu). His latest post, dated October 15, announced the October 23 Peace March demonstration of civic groups in defense of the government so maligned by the opposition. He accused Gordon Bajnai of all sorts of crimes. According to Csizmadia, the former prime minister “with his party friends (pártbarátaival) squandered the money received from the IMF and drowned his already drowning country in a sea of debt.” He added that the opposition will use October 23 for campaign purposes when they have no right to exist. They should simply disappear in shame.

Speaking of squandering money (and shame), there are other beneficiaries of NEA who are even closer to Fidesz and the Orbán government than the organizations I mentioned earlier. The Magyar Dinnye Szövetség (Hungarian Melon Association) headed by György Simonka, a Fidesz member of parliament, received 4.4 million forints from NEA. An organization called Magyar Tanyákon Élők Egyesülete (Association of People Living on Hungarian Homesteads) received 4 million forints. This organization is headed by another Fidesz MP, József Balogh. The Nők a Nemzet Jövőjéért (Women for the Nation’s Future) got 1.2 million. This particular group belongs to an umbrella organization called Magyar Asszonyok Érdekszövetsége (Association of Hungarian Women) whose founder and honorary president is Ilona Ékes, another Fidesz MP. And saving the best for last, 3.5 million forints went to the Nők a Magyar Nemzetért Egyesület (Women for the Hungarian Nation) whose only activity, according to Népszava, was that it joined Csizmadia’s CÖF, the organization set up to manage the peace marches.

October 23: The speech of Viktor Orbán about revolution and freedom from speculators

First a few words about “the war of numbers.” Only the truly faithful can believe that while the Peace Marchers numbered 150,000, there were only 20,000 people at the Milla-Solidarity demonstration. Even the 150,000 figure wasn’t high enough for some; later the Fidesz organizers claimed that there were at least 400,000 demonstrators by the time the crowd got to Kossuth Square. There is no way that Kossuth Square can hold 400,000 people. Moreover, I looked at several photos taken on the spot, from which it was apparent that the square was not completely full and that people weren’t packed like sardines. Not like 56 years ago when one couldn’t drop a pin.Yesterday it was sparsely filled at best.

From journalistic accounts we learned that a lot of people didn’t even wait for Viktor Orbán’s speech and began to leave in order to beat the traffic. Andrei Stavilă’s pictures also show how dramatically Fidesz supporters have aged, an especially ironic turn of events since the party’s original name was Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (Association of Young Democrats) and only people under the age of 35 could be members of the party.

Listening  to or reading commentators’ reactions to the speeches, one cannot help being amazed at the widely divergent opinions about the same speech depending on political preference.  Tamás Pindroch, a right-wing journalist working for Magyar Hírlap, found Bajnai’s speech boring and flat. According to him, Bajnai was nervous throughout. His “instructors” told him to speak slowly and as the result he was unnatural. László Kéri, a former professor of Viktor Orbán and a political scientist, on the other hand, thought that Orbán’s speech was absolutely dreadful. One of the worst speeches of his career. The same Kéri found Bajnai’s speech inspiring and his delivery surprisingly good. Pindroch naturally thought the world of Orbán’s speech.

In assessing the contents of the two speeches I think ATV’s list of “most often used words” in the two texts might be useful. Orbán’s most often used word was “Hungarian” (30 times) followed by “accept” or “not accept,” mostly in connection with Hungary’s relations to the European Union (14 times). Orbán also liked the phrase “we were, we are, we will be able” to do this or that (11 times).

Bajnai’s most often used words were “new” and “politics” (42 and 27 times), “government” (25 times), “change of regime or government” (10 times), “change” (9 times), “together” (8 times), “Europe,” “solidarity,” “homeland and progress” (each 8 times).

I think from this simple list we can see that the two speeches were about two very different things. Bajnai emphasized a new direction, change, and a positive attitude toward the European Union while Orbán mentioned Europe only twice and both times with a negative connotation.

Kossuth tér, October 23, 2012
Photo by István Huszti / Index

Orbán in his speech attempted to compare the collapse of the Soviet system in Hungary in 1956 to the collapse of  Lehman Brothers in 2008. As you can imagine, the comparison is more than a little forced. The socialist system in Hungary was able to survive for a while, he argued, because it was “attached to the string of a world power.” That string broke or the hand that held it became weak and the whole edifice collapsed. “Just as on one fall morning an American financial giant in New York collapsed and the economy of the west was shattered.” It turned out, according to Orbán, that the economy of the western world, to which Hungary also belongs, “doesn’t stand on its own feet.” It doesn’t stand on the basis of “honest work but it is held by the string of a financial worldwide empire.” After this collapse there is no road back to the pleasant European way of life.

Europe is in trouble because it irresolute and it is a captive of ideologies instead of relying on the power of common sense. “Europe should understand that without nations it has no heart and without Christianity it has no soul.”

It was at this point that Orbán lashed out at the alleged sins of the European Union in relation to Hungary. According to him “there are quite a few people in Brussels who instead of renewing the European economy want to breathe new life into the decaying financial- and bank-capitalism. Instead of an economy based on work, they want to resurrect the regime of speculators. Instead of an equitable division they want to put all the financial burdens caused by the faltering economy on “the people.” His government cannot accept this way of handling the crisis. They also refuse to accept that “others tell us what we can or can’t do in our own country…. or that by however subtle means foreigners govern us.” Finally, “we accept that European institutions deserve our respect but we don’t accept that any of the institutions of the Union be disrespectful of the Hungarians.”

A few words of explanation about Orbán’s reference to the “equitable burden” that on paper sounds so enticing. What this covers is the incredible taxation of banks and certain sectors of Hungarian economic life, which played a large part in the recession that hit Hungary in 2012. Moreover, in the final analysis every penny the Hungarian government gets in the form of extra taxes from banks and businesses is paid by the Hungarian consumers.

As for the part of the speech that was devoted to 1956 there are some questionable assertions. For example, that the participants in the 1956 uprising “gave us the courage forty years later to drive out the Soviets, to topple the socialist workers’ party, to destroy the mines and the barbed wires that separated us from the free world.” Of course, Hungarians didn’t drive out the Soviet troops; they went on their own as a result of the Soviet recognition that their empire could no longer be maintained. The negotiations over the withdrawal were conducted not by the democratic opposition but by the last government of the Kádár regime. There were no mines on the Austro-Hungarian borders ever since the mid-1950s. By the way, that’s why 200,000 Hungarian refugees managed to walk across the border relatively easily in 1956-57. The barbed wire was also dismantled way before the change of regime. In fact, Hungarians by then had valid passports and went in hordes to Austria to buy items that were hard to come by in Hungary.

As for toppling the socialist workers’ party, this is a huge exaggeration. It needed no toppling. The reform wing of MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt, and I don’t know why Orbán didn’t use its proper name here) organized MSZP while the hard-core communists organized their own party, the Magyar Kommunista Munkáspárt, which received no more than 0.11% of the votes in 2010. These are the dangerous communists Orbán implores his followers to fight against. But if there aren’t enough true communists, he can always make his followers believe that members of MSZP, many of them born in the 1970s, are the same communists who were turning against their own people in 1956. Orbán said as much when he compared October 23, 2006 to 1956, adding that “the aspirations of the revolution’s suppressors didn’t disappear from Hungarian public life.” Lajos Kósa, who is a great deal less subtle than the prime minister, went even further and announced that MSZP is the same party that suppressed the 1956 revolution and that is an impossible situation that this party is allowed to exist. “As if after the end of World War II a new reform Nazi party came into being hiding within parliament…. If there can be no reform-Nazi party there cannot be a reform communist party. We can close this era only if the successor to the party that suppressed the revolution disappears from politics.”

Kósa delivered this speech in Szentes, Orbán spoke in Budapest. But surely both used the same Urtext.

A great speech: Gordon Bajnai, the hope of the Hungarian opposition

I had the good fortune, thanks to modern technology, to be able to see or hear all the important speeches today. As I was listening I took copious notes.

I began my day by tuning into ATV, but within half an hour the interest was so great that their server gave up the ghost. However, I still managed to hear Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech. At this point I switched to Klubrádió where I caught Péter Juhász. Then I received a direct link from a friend to Milla’s video where I heard Péter Kónya and Gordon Bajnai. Finally I was able to listen to the whole speech of Viktor Orbán by switching back to Klubrádió.

Let’s start with Gordon Bajnai. If there is a clear winner of the day it is certainly Gordon Bajnai. I always liked him and was impressed by the quiet, resolute way in which he managed to save Hungary’s sinking financial ship during one short year in office. When he handed the country over to “the dear leader,” as more and more people call Viktor Orbán, it was in fairly decent shape. Orbán managed to steer the country into recession in two short years.

But I couldn’t quite imagine Bajnai as a politician. He is basically a modest man who, when he became prime minister, described himself as a goalie rather than a forward. (He does play football like Viktor Orbán, but what a difference!) Moreover, he said often enough during his tenure that he was not a politician but a man who became prime minister because of his problem-solving talents. Yet he managed to secure the support of the two governing parties by telling them that if they don’t promise unwavering support of his austerity package they can forget about his accepting the job. What I missed in him was the fire.

But perhaps the fire was there all along. Perhaps it was just that those times needed quiet perseverance instead of fiery speeches. Bajnai’s other, until now hidden, side came out today. At last we can say that there might be a more than worthy opponent to Viktor Orbán. I think that Bajnai’s speech today just might convince the disparate groups and parties that it is worth throwing their weight behind him as a common candidate leading a united opposition.

Gordon Bajnai at the Milla-Solidarity demonstration
Origo / Photo by Zsófia Pályi

As opposed to Orbán’s forced “My honored ladies and gentlemen” (tisztelt hölgyeim és uraim), Bajnai talked to his “friends” (barátaim) and “compatriots” (honfitársaim). He used the familiar form (te ~ ti).

He began by outlining the psychological road that led to his appearance at this demonstration. On March 15 he attended the demonstration as one of the many thousand participants. Initially he maintained that he wasn’t a politician and therefore he had no intention of getting involved in politics. But at the beginning he wasn’t worried about the survival of democracy in Hungary. Soon enough, however, came “the bitter awakening.” He had  to get involved because, as he said, “I can do no other.” Who doesn’t hear in this sentence the words of Martin Luther? He came to the conclusion that 2014 is not just one election among many; it is an event that will determine not just the next four years but the next twenty-five. He can’t sit and do nothing.

In 2010 a lot of people wanted “change.” They had enough of unfulfilled promises, political warfare, and dilettantism. “They trusted and they were deceived…. We all have to ask forgiveness from each other and from the world…. This government methodically breaks the backbone of democracy vertebra by vertebra.” After describing the “institutionalized corruption” Bajnai went on to say that “the rich get richer and the poor are the poorest,” a nod to a famous poem by Attila József (“Aki szegény, az a legszegényebb”). He talked about the aggressiveness of the regime, but argued that aggressiveness is “the last refuge of the impotent.”

Bajnai continued by saying that one needs more than a change of government, there must be a regime change. In fact, there must be even more, an entirely new era (korszakváltás). To achieve this goal one doesn’t need a new party. Instead, people from the right and the left should “meet in the middle.”

There are four important considerations the opposition must keep in mind. First, they have to deal with the concepts of the “homeland” (haza) and “progress” (haladás). We mustn’t forget that the name of Bajnai’s foundation is Haza és haladás. What did he want to say here? That the liberals and the socialists must pay more attention to Hungarian patriotism. After all, there can be no question that one of the chief appeals of Orbán is his nationalist demagoguery. The left simply doesn’t know what to do with the question of nationalism versus patriotism. On the other hand, the left has a fairly clear concept of “progress.” They want to bring Hungary closer to Europe and achieve greater democracy. But, as Bajnai stressed, “the emphasis is on the “és,” on the “and.” One cannot neglect one at the expense of the other. Otherwise, the opposition forces will not be able to recruit members from the moderate right without whom regime change is impossible.

Bajnai dealt with two more important aspects that must be part of the underlying foundations of this new epoch. One is solidarity, which is sorely missing from the mindset of the current government. Orbán simply doesn’t care about the fate of the poor, whose numbers are growing by leaps and bounds. Right now we are talking about 40% of the population. The economic policies of a new government must deal with this segment of the population by redistributing the burdens that the current tax policy imposes on the less well-to-do portion of society. Finally, Hungarians at the moment are deeply divided over the issue of the country’s relationship to the European Union. Supporters of Orbán look upon it as an oppressive empire that foists its own will upon Hungary. As Orbán put it in his speech today, “we can’t accept that others can decide what we can do in our own country” and, a sentence or two later, “we can’t accept that foreigners govern us.” According to Bajnai, “there must be a new understanding” of Hungary’s role in Europe based on “common interest and a community of shared values (értékközösség).”

Bajnai also said a few words about the Orbán government’s program of “national unity across borders,” which in his opinion can only fail. What the country needs is “unifying the nation within the borders.” Difficult times await the democratic opposition but it can be done. “We want to get our country back, a country we can be proud of. … It can be done together. Only together can it be done.”

It was a great and inspiring speech. A new politician was born today, a man for whom the country has been waiting for some time.